When you think of Louis Vuitton, what comes to mind is probably the Speedy bag you coveted in high school, the Neverfull you stick your laptop in for work trips, or famous faces of the brand like Alicia Vikander and Michelle Williams. But the house’s history goes all the way back to 1835, when 14-year-old Louis (yep, LV was a real dude) left his family mill in Jura, France for Paris. He was soon hired by box maker Romain Marécha as an apprentice, and by 1854, he had his own business selling specialty trunks for traveling. That’s right, he was a business owner by 33. Try not to be jealous. He did start at the age most of us are still rocking braces, after all.
It’s trunks, not bags or couture, that are the backbone of the Louis Vuitton brand, and some dating back as far as 1886 are currently on display as part of the exhibition “Volez Voguez Voyagez” at New York’s American Stock Exchange Building, where they will be until January 7, 2018. A centerpiece is the so-called “Trunk of 1906″—the classic LV trunk that, if you’re very lucky, someone in your family owns and you stand to inherit—with the iconic, all-over monogram and the interlocking internal compartments. Others selected by curator Olivier Saillard include the animal-printed trunks used in Wes Anderson’s 2007 film Darjeeling Limited and a luggage set that once belonged to Elizabeth Taylor (with one suitcase bearing a tag that simply says “mine”).
Vuitton introduced his trunks at the perfect moment in history because the boom in transportation technology suddenly allowed for the wealthy and upper-middle class to travel for pleasure, typically by ocean liner or train, and then eventually in airplanes. Which, of course, necessitated chic yet practical luggage. The Vuitton family built trunks specifically designed with different forms of transportation in mind, like the Malle Aero, which was lighter than its counterparts in order to be used for air travel.
These days, you’re not so likely to see someone hauling an LV trunk through the airport (though that would warrant serious respect), which has led to its re-branding as a collector’s item. Vuitton has a great history of collaborating with artists like Takashi Murakami and Damien Hirst, who have created limited-edition bags and trunks. Recently, as you may know, they collaborated with the streetwear brand Supreme to offer a “skateboard trunk” that retails for $46,000 and a Malle Courrier 90 that goes for a cool $57,000. The best part? People actually bought them.
Other artists and designers to lend their aesthetic to the brand include Yayoi Kusama, Cindy Sherman, Richard Prince, and most recently, Jeff Koons, who made those “Master’s Collection” bags you’ve probably seen everywhere. While artist/designer collabs have become somewhat de rigueur, LV paved the way and few brands have the track record of creating instantly iconic products with big-name artists that they do. Combining a storied history with a distinct sense of modernity is a tough balance to strike for many old-school fashion houses. But if this exhibition reveals anything, it’s that Vuitton has managed to do so easily.